2015 has been a crazy good year for new music! So good, in fact, that I’ve decided to expand upon my annual Top 5 Albums posts (OpMan Archives: 2014, 2013, 2012), and do a sort of long-list/short-list Polaris rip-off something or other.
Below are all contenders for 2015’s Top 5 list. This is based on a handful of rigorous criteria, outlined below:
– Must be a full album (no EPs, singles, etc.)
– Must be released in 2015
– Must have been listened to by me
– Must actually be good (tons of stuff never made the cut, and some were cut as this was edited and updated)
January 4: Death Grips – Fashion Week – I think this is being looked at as an EP, so I was on the fence about including it. However, it’s long enough to be an album, and it’s pretty god damned cool! The absence of MC Ride’s insane rapping, and the fact that it’s clearly a teaser, leading up to their promised release later in the year, might hold this release back from the top 5, but it’s sure as hell good enough to be long-listed here!
January 12: Justin Townes Earle – Absent Fathers – Following last year’s Single Mothers, and knowing that this is the second part of a dual release, this is a good piece of Americana from a slightly pissed, but still sentimental son of a blues rock legend.
January 13: Dan Mangan + Blacksmith – Club Meds – Already being a fan, I have certain hopes and expectations of a new Dan Mangan album. It took a bit for me to warm up to it, but this is a really fine work that sounds much more like a group effort than previous Mangan albums.
January 13: Mark Ronson – Uptown Special – Wow! If this is what radio pop is going to start sounding like, I am on board! Ronson had me within 30 seconds of the first track, when I heard Stevie Wonder’s distinct chromonica playing! Where it went from there: wow!
January 20: Björk – Vulnicura – I’ve always considered Björk to be more of an artist than many musicians. The only predicable thing about her work is that it will be something different. With this album, she sounds less playful and joking, and more sincere, and it totally works for me. This heartfelt album is worth the listen.
January 20: CAIRO – A History Of Reasons – This album has somewhat of a mainstream pop rock feel that just about put me off entirely. Not because it’s bad – because it’s not quite my jam. It wasn’t until the second last track that I heard something that blew me away. Enough to make me give a closer listen to the rest of the album. This mainstream-sounding recording is some serious stuff!
January 26: Africa Express Presents – Terry Riley’s In C Mali Originally written in 1964, this cover of an interesting composition is exceptional. The piece, on its own, is interesting (being improvised on a set of ideas), and has been covered before, but this 40-minute 45-second recording, featuring Brian Eno, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and other hot shots, is just the right amount of time to be completely engulfed and infatuated with the sound.
January 27: Dengue Fever – The Deepest Lake – I really like Dengue Fever, so when I found out there was a new album, it was a no-brainer. They’re not really breaking new ground on this album. Instead, they’re just having fun being the best at what they do: Cambodian psych/surf rock something something!
January 27: The Lone Bellow – Then Came The Morning – What a stellar sound! I can’t decide if I like this album more for being better, or their untitled 2013 release for being more familiar. This album requires a few listens – not to get into – to just enjoy again and again.
February 10: Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Turn – This album makes me wonder what happened to Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rhiannon and her husband are part of both groups, and they sound, unsurprisingly similar. None of this stopped me from buying the album, I should say. It’s really good stuff!
February 10: Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear I hate to say it (only because the guy is a douchebag – more on that another time), but this is a really good album. I mean really good. Songwriting, lyrics, style… The whole album is just incredibly good!
February 11: Ibeyi – Ibeyi – I Love music that’s hard to pigeonhole. This album has hauntingly beautiful singing in English and Yoruba by twin sisters (whose musical father played in Buena Vista Social Club). It also has a cool mix of Europop, hip hop, jazz, Afro-Cuban. All around very cool find for 2015!
February 17: Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned – When I heard there was new music from Whitehorse, it immediately got put on my backburner – not because I wasn’t interested – because I assumed it would be great and knew I could pick it up easily after digging for new music I’d never heard of throughout the year. As anticipated, Whitehorse continues to produce really good music, with a personal touch that only Canada’s favourite recording couple can deliver.
February 24: BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul – I don’t know the story of how a young Toronto-based jazz/funk trio hooked up with heavyweight rapper Ghostface Killer and hit it off well enough to make an album together, and it doesn’t even matter. This is a crazy, unlikely, top-notch recording that you should definitely give a listen.
March 17: Tobias Jesso, Jr. – Goon – I just about wrote this off as being too piano pop solo artist (think Elton John, Billy Joel, etc.), but hearing an interview with him on CBC made me give another listen. The songs are good, the music is good… This is a good album. Glad I gave it another shot.
March 17: Joel Plaskett – The Park Avenue Sobriety Test – I love Joel Plaskett! He writes catchy pop stuff that always sounds like Joel Plaskett. Normally I shy away from such straightforward stuff, but I make an exception for him, because he’s just so darned good! Also one of the most personable, honest fellows I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing for Regina Community Radio!
March 24: Alessandro Cortini – Forse 3 – Most people who are deeply into modular synthesis are more interested in making non-musical noises than something closer to what we hear as music. Cortini is a bit of an oddity in this respect. Forse 3 has clear use of melody, harmony, and rhythm. And not just for the sake of it. This is a neat album to put on the headphones and just get lost into.
March 31: Death Grips – The Powers That B The unconventional experimental hip hop duo that keeps everyone guessing, releases their anticipated 2015 official album (after whatever Fashion Week was, and unsurprisingly, I did it. Don’t know if it’s my favourite album of theirs, but I love the insane sound these guys continue with TPTB.
March 31: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens is pretty incredible, so I tend to expect a lot of his new releases. In a way, I expect to be let down, because how can he possibly get better? Carrie & Lowell pulled me right in by the heart and kept me close. This album has such a personal feel, and its bedroom-recording style really suits it.
April 6: Young Fathers – White Men Are Black Men Too – This was another one that was on the chopping block for this list. At face value, it kind of turned me off, but repeat listens reveal all these neat little originalities that make it worthwhile.
April 7: Colleen – Captain Of None – Coming from trained baroque backgrounds, most viola de gamba players don’t venture far into modern experimental loop music. Thank the stringed instrument gods we have French artist Cécile Schott! Using loop and delay pedals on acoustic instruments isn’t new, so I feel like she could have gone further with this album, but it’s still definitely worth a listen!
April 7: Lee Harvey Osmond – Beautiful Scars – Tom Wilson said of this project (paraphrasing) that he’d finally come into the sound and spirit that he’d been trying to find for years, in music. I would agree. This is a solid album. Yeah, it’s in the Americana/Canadiana rock vein, where there’s not much left that hasn’t been said or done already, but I don’t like it for being groundbreaking in the world of music. I like it for just being really good!
April 21: Beauty Pill – Describes Things As They Are – This album has all the makings of a cool new rock album! There are some really catchy licks, some neat improvised stuff, good lyrics and story telling, sweet drumming… I have to say, I wasn’t expecting something this good, when it first came under my radar.
May 5: Kamasi Washington – The Epic – Speaking of old musical genres that never go away, it’s hard for a new jazz album to impress me. Very hard. I mean, it’s all been done, right? The Epic isn’t just a pretentious name. This is a motherfucker of a recording! Like much good jazz, it’s not for the faint if heart, but something any current jazz fan should listen to.
May 5: TORRES – Sprinter – Yet another on this list that took me a couple tries to warm up to. It’s easy for me to dismiss rock albums though. Most new rock albums I hear kind of suck. Not this one though. There’s good songwriting, emotion, some good dark and light moments. This is one of the good ones. Looking forward to more from her as time goes on!
May 12: Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power In The Blood – Once in a rare while, an artist succeeds in making me feel what they feel. I’ve always been a fan of Buffy’s persona/politics/personality. I’ve never considered myself a fan of her music, though. This album forever changed that! What a fantastic, driving, unique, magnetic piece of work!
May 12: Prurient – Frozen Niagara Falls – This is a delightfully fucked up mixture of drone electronica, drone metal, industrial, basement-recording-quality noise that runs deeper than you might expect from a casual listen of a single track. The content (when you can understand it) is pretty personal, sometimes uncomfortable, and engaging. The rest is just sweet gross noise!
May 12: The Weather Station – Loyalty – Halfway into the first track in this album, you know you’re listening to a Joni fan. More than that, though, you know you’re listening to something special. It’s as though you’re listening to Tamara Lindeman’s quiet, gentle voice in her own living room. Not surprising, given that the album was recorded by the band’s three members while wintering in a rented mansion.
May 18: Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa This music is as interesting as the story of those who made it. This eclectic mix of sounds from an equally eclectic group of musicians is something you have to hear! You have to!
May 22: Daniel Johns – Talk – I have mixed feelings over Johns’ solo electronic pop release. While some of the tracks are quite good, the album kind of comes off as a bandwagon-jumping thing done by a rich, formerly famous good singer. Part of me can’t help but compare it to silverchair’s heyday, which was…. well… better than this.
May 23: Bully – Feels Like – Who knew I’d be so into a post-punk/grunge band in 2015? And they’re writing meaningful, personal lyrics? Shit! I want to see this band perform or get famous or something! Cool release!
May 26: Made In Heights – Without My Enemy, What Would I Do – It surely comes down to personal taste, but while this album is much in the same vein as Daniel Johns’ Talk, I find myself enjoying this one more. Maybe it’s due to no preexisting notion of what sound to expect. Either way, Without My Enemy… comes off as more original and enjoyable in that wide world of synthy pop stuff out there right now. This album also has the big plus of lots of acoustic noises going on, throughout.
May 26: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love – You know I love music with great musical intention. I love stuff that seeks for a particular sound – something different. I also love when an artist manages to do all of this while remaining relatively poppy and accessible. This album makes me want to sing along, space out, play along, and head bob, all at once! It’s not exactly rock, but there’s a backbeat and distorted guitars. It’s not exactly that all-encompassing “electronic music” label, but there’s some pretty electronic synth and effect sounds. I can’t understand most of the words, but I feel like I know them. Well done, Mortal.
May 28: Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – Surf – Hip hop is ageing. Like jazz (though not as old), it’s getting harder to do something that hasn’t been done before, or hasn’t been done better already. Somehow Donnie Trumpet has pulled it off! This is a super fun mix of hip hop, jazz, funk, New Orleans, and more. Killer stuff!
June 2: Bomba Estéreo – Amanecer – It’s not often that Latin-based dancehall stuff makes it under my radar. If I’d read a description before listening, I probably would have passed without thinking twice. So glad I listened before judging. This is a fun, deadly, not boring, musical, Latin-based dancehall smoker of an album!
June 2: Florence & The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful – Florence Welch is a serious artist who makes serious music. None of that is bad, but this new release takes some determination and the right mood to take in. It’s worth it, believe me. But this isn’t background music to play at work.
June 8: Daymé Arocena – Nueva Era Cuban music calls to me in a way that few others do. Nueva Era isn’t the stuff Ry Cooder re-popularized with Buena Vista Social Club, though. This album has a big dose of Afro-Cuban Santería, surrounded by some sweet, low down funky jazz, and topped with a sweet and mighty young voice! I hereby recommend this album to lovers of music.
June 21: Thundercat – The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam They’re calling this a “mini album”. Feels kind of like an EP to me, but I’ll roll with it. Thundercat sounds like Flying Lotus. This is not surprising, since they frequently collaborate. Where they differ is that TCat is the meat and bones, while Flylo is the flavourful broth. This is a cool recording, but I can’t help unfairly compare it to Flylo’s massive 2014 release, You’re Dead. Sorry Thundercat. At least you show off some killer electric bass skills and have a fun moniker.
June 30: Mocky – Key Change – This whole recording has this great almost ’60s lounge vibe that I really dig. It’s jammy, but organized. It has these catchy licks, woven into nice paddy string arrangements, with a perfectly dated touch. Maybe the type of thing you’d hear on the soundtrack to an ultramellow, cool, slick 1965 movie about a hip group, hanging out in futuristic hotel pools and lounges. Or something. Anyway, this is a totally unexpected good find. Did I mention Feist and Chilly Gonzalez are on this album? Not bad for a kid from Lumsden, SK.
July 10: Lee Bannon – Pattern Of Excel – You want soundscape? Got it! You want field recordings? Got it! You want ambient music mixed with minimal electro? Got it! You want complex layers of sound right next to simple repetitions? All yours. You want lyrics? Look elsewhere. This is a great, sophisticated, yet simple ambient/minimal instrumental album that lovers of nice noises should give a shot.
July 24: Seven Davis Jr. – Universes – Once I got over the dumb name (maybe there’s an inside meaning that I’m not getting, or maybe dude’s just a really big Sammy fan), and really started to listen to it, I really started to like this album. It’s got this cool sort of hip hop mentality, but it’s not hop hop, really. It’s more like this neat exploration into repetitive riffs, spacious vibes, and almost like rapped mantra or something. Very cool!
July 27: Alessandro Cortini – Risveglio – When you’re a synth geek with a pop song mentality, one album in a year is apparently not enough. This one is equally cool as the other one, but I couldn’t tell you what track comes from which album. Not that that matters, I guess.
July 28: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy – So, you hear the name and you think: theatre troupe? You see a picture of the band and you think: rock band? You dig into their back catalog and you think: Shakespeare-themed rock band? Titus Andronicus is at least of all of these. This particular tragedy is one of the most solid punk-based, rock-something albums I’ve heard in a while! Partly because it’s… wait… what? An hour and a half long?!!!
August 7: Chelsea Wolfe – Abyss – Whoa! What just happened here? If this album was released in the ’90s, the then-goth/industrial teen in me would fight to the death anyone who disagreed that this was one of the best albums released then. If anyone else released an album this dark in 2015, I would probably write it off as been-done. Abyss, on the other hand, pulls me way under, suffocating me in this dark, unpretty world. And I CAN’T GET ENOUGH!
August 7: Dr. Dre – Compton – Part of me thinks: Oh god, why? Part of me thinks: No way! Fuck yeah! After a few listens I went from, “This has been sooo done before,” to “At least Dre is still fucking gangsta!” It’s great. Even being way over the Eminem days with “My name is… My name is…” Shit! You should hear the track he raps on. Not to mention the rest of the all-star cast on this album. Don’t judge. Just listen.
August 7: The Mynabirds – Lovers Know – To an extent, this reminds me of Florence + The Machine’s monster 2011 release, Ceremonials. This comparison is in its seriousness and depth. After that comparison, Lovers Know is one of those few albums pulling off that overdone synth pop vein of music without being boring or just shitty. I quite like this album!
August 21: Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet – Having her 2009 EP Mind Raft, I thought I knew what to expect of Expanding Flower Planet. This album not only sounded different from what I expected, it initially turned me right off. The whole album has this subdued feel that made me think it just didn’t reach potential. Still, I forced myself to listen again, then again… Before I knew it, it finally occurred to me that there was so much more going on than I first heard. It may be one of those takes-a-few-listens albums, but I now love it!
August 21: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Yes. Yes! Dear god, YES! Despite some middle-of-the-road ratings from the big guys (AllMusic, Rolling Stone, etc.), I consider this to be a motherfucker of a release. While not a complete departure from his more folky roots, this album has got The South written all over it – in a good way. This is definitely one of this year’s must-listens!
September 4: Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One To Love – This tiny, playful voice hasn’t been on the jazz scene for long, but the 26-year-old has already had two Grammy noms, and has won a handful of other awards. I’d never heard of her before this year, I admit, but I’ll be keeping an eye on her now. This album is an excellent example of why I keep listening to jazz!
September 4: Souljazz Orchestra – Resistance – These guys have been bringing the soul/funk/afrobeat/thing-they-do for over a decade now, and they’ve always done it well, but the latest album is crushing it! Everything about this album feels solid. It makes you want to dance, clap, shout a song of defiance! Get this in your eardrums!
September 18: Ben Caplan – Birds With Broken Wings The thought of yet another bearded dude with a raspy voice, semi-unique songwriting style, and… aw shucks… broken-winged birds doesn’t exactly make me want to get out my credit card. It was in discovering that this album was produced by Socalled that really piqued my interest. I’m so glad I gave it a shot! I like good music whose idiom isn’t clearly defined, played really really well. This definitely fits. There’s some east coast folk feel, some singer/songwriter stuff, some rock & roll, some klezmer clarinet, some cabaret stuff. Shit man! This album is great!
September 18: Christian Scott – Stretch Music – This guy is 16 days older than I am. But at 32 years, Christian Scott has been a little busier than I have. His name frequently comes up in current who’s who lists for a reason. This is his 11th album as a leader, and it’s pretty badass! There’s some big time jazz, hip hop, and electronic stuff going on, with all the right flavours! I’m digging the new jazz sound!
September 25: Chvrches – Every Open Eye – Hard to follow their big debut a couple years ago. This album kind of sounds same-y to me. Points for consistency, and for being really good, fun, synth pop stuff, but not sure this album is sparking something for me, the same way their last album did.
September 25: Julia Holter – Have You In My Wilderness – I nearly missed this gem, until I saw it mentioned amidst twenty some other recent releases. Someone had written a tiny recommendation, not unlike this one, so I gave it a listen. Love it! Original-sounding pop music with lots of strings, piano, expression. It’s a bit like someone listened to Sgt Pepper and Beck’s Morning Phase, back to back, over and over, then recorded an album of original music.
November 6: Grimes – Art Angels – It was temping to cut this. Parts of it annoy the hell out of me. Grimes intentionally sings in this ultra-annoying high-pitched, nasal “girl” voice throughout much of the album that makes me wish I were reviewing paintings. The masochistic in me, however, kept listening. Over and over. Until I kinda liked it.
November 13: Oneohtrix Point Never – Garden Of Delete – I like using the term “experimental” to describe new music. It’s sort of my catchall for anything unique and good. It implies that the artist is searching for or crafting a unique sound, or doing something a new or unaccepted way. This particular experimental electronic album is something that should have come up on more radars this year. Yeah, it’s just sampling, synthesizers, and computer music, but like I said, it’s experimental! I like it!
November 20: Arca – Mutant – Not much in the popular music blogs about good electronic music, this year. Allow me to maybe even be the first to tell you about this album. It’s got everything a good, new electronic album should have: originality, musical intention, creativity, exploration, repeat listenability, and, of course, no stupid vocals, messing all this sweet stuff up!
That’s all for now. 2015 isn’t quite over yet, so if any surprise killer albums come out in the next week and a half, this list could very well change, slightly. If not, check back here to see which albums make the illustrious Top 5 – to be posted here very soon!